He is the most charted male adult contemporary artist to date and has six gold and platinum albums. His lyrical piano playing and tremendous catalog speak volumes. But even after decades in the business, Jim Brickman doesn’t consider himself a pianist, per se.
“I’m more of a songwriter, a melody writer,” Brickman says. “I’m not as much about technique; I’m more about writing. That’s something that comes completely naturally.”
Brickman’s songwriting has led him to release more than two-dozen albums and work with artists like Lady Antebellum, Michael W. Smith, Martina McBride, Donny Osmond, Olivia Newton-John, and more. Since 1997 he’s hosted the weekly radio program Your Weekend with Jim Brickman. And then there are events like his annual fan cruise and songwriting workshops in Nashville. Even with the ever-full plate, Brickman, 51, keeps innovating ways to deliver his music to new audiences.
“I always look for what’s next and opportunities,” he says. “Looking forward is important. You can get down about where you are—if things aren’t working, you’re not selling enough. Looking forward is always important.”
How Discovering Music as a Child Helped Brickman’s Career
Though his family wasn’t musical, Brickman had a natural inclination toward music as a child. However, his piano teacher didn’t think his enthusiasm translated into ability.
“I started taking lessons with this woman down the street who thought I didn’t have talent,” Brickman explains. “My mom basically laid it down and said, ‘I don’t care if he has talent; he’s passionate, which is the most important thing. Keep teaching him.’”
Brickman continued to study classical piano, but found himself attracted more to pop music. “When I heard it on the radio, especially in the ’70s—Carole King, James Taylor, The Eagles—I just felt like the songs, the stories, took you in emotionally. A lot of it is just by nature. Whatever draws you in is what you head towards. Pop music did that for me.”
Though his first experience with an instructor wasn’t so positive, when he was 13, Brickman met Marshall Griffith—a teacher who would change everything for the young performer. Griffith opened up Brickman’s world to chords, chord structure, pop songwriting, and other musical concepts. “We had a wonderful relationship,” Brickman says. “There was never anything that you did wrong. His philosophy was that it might be a different approach—but it’s not necessarily right or wrong.”
Brickman formed bands in high school at the Cleveland Institute of Music. He recalls winning a local radio station competition at age 15 as a pivotal event. When he heard his own music on the radio, it felt like “entrée into the real world instead of fantasy.”
Brickman continued at the institute through college. He founded his own advertising music company (The Brickman Arrangement) in 1980 out of his dorm room. He channeled his pop sensibilities and wrote jingles for companies like Isuzu, McDonalds, and Pontiac.
How He Got Into Songwriting
“I always had a knack for writing very poppy, hooky songs,” he says. “So, I was enamored with commercials, and at that age, there’s just not enough life experience to write great pop love songs. You’re just not in a place where you have a source for anything to write about. Commercials were a great way to write pop songs without writing about emotional, personal kinds of things. It was a great way to dabble.”
That dabbling has led to a long and successful career studded with accomplishments. After signing with Windham Hill Records, Brickman released his first album, No Words, in 1994 and “Rocket to the Moon” became his first Billboard-ranked track. Brickman continued releasing his own albums, but his collaborations give him a special kind of pride.
“One of the things about any kind of music or collaboration: If you force it or try to make something that’s not genuinely there, you can do it, but it won’t necessarily be successful. It must be sincere, authentic,” Brickman says. “I can’t say, ‘I want to do a country collaboration. Let me pick a country artist.’ It’s more like, ‘you know who would be great to sing this song? I love Martina McBride’s voice.’ People assume I want to crossover. It’s more of what’s right for the particular song.”
“All of the collaborations—country, Broadway, R&B—the commonality is they’re all singing my songs. They all have a tone that’s me, complemented by singers of different genres,” he explains. “I love that. It sends this very subtle message: music is music. It’s not about a category. I think that’s especially true these days. People like all different kinds of music for different reasons. A song will speak to you that isn’t in a genre you normally listen to. Music is something that should be taken in for what it is, not what category it’s in.”
Breaking Out of the “Bubble”
Brickman’s show isn’t just about his music. He relishes the opportunity to reach outside his music industry “bubble” and communicate to audiences beyond the music. He carries that verbal connection to his radio show where he meets, interviews, and learns from interesting and influential people. Guests on the show, broadcast from his New York City studio, have included politicians, actors, musicians, from Johnny Mathis to Bill Clinton—something he calls “surreal.”
“Just by circumstance, I tend to be in a bubble,” he says. “On a tour bus, in the studio, in the theater. I’m not out and about as much as I’d really like to be. The [radio] show helps me. You have to do research and be aware. It gives me a chance to be on the other side of the microphone.”
When it comes to songwriting, Brickman says he is inspired and assisted by songwriting partner, Luke McMaster. “I don’t know what it is between the two of us,” Brickman says. “I just see him and think of ideas. We’re in a car driving and I have an idea immediately.”
The pair’s unique teamwork is evident in their music. “I believe that people really feel the camaraderie we share and that it enhances, not only our experience on stage, but the experience for the audience most importantly,” McMaster says.
The two spend a significant amount of time both on the road touring and writing, very often combining the two. “It’s rare that we’ll be touring or doing a promotional event at a radio station, that we aren’t chatting about a current melody or lyric we’re working on,” McMaster says. “We’re songwriting addicts!”
That is also doubtlessly part of the reason Brickman decided to host a songwriting weekend in Nashville, July 18-21. It gave attendees an in-depth, intimate experience examining the songwriting process.
“It’s like songwriters in the round in Nashville,” Brickman says. “The way songs are written and people who write—the culture that is in Nashville. I thought it was interesting.”
Music Comes First
Nearly 20 years after the release of his first album, Brickman still manages to keep things in perspective. He has honed his advice for aspiring musicians, a culmination of his time in the business, all of the hard work, and resulting success.
“Music has to come first, and it can’t be a choice,” he says. “Like, ‘Should I be an insurance salesman or a musician?’ If there’s an “or,” then it’s not something that’s meant to be, I think. I never felt that I had a choice. Then, take every chance you have to go play, wherever you can—busking in the street, playing at a bar mitzvah or for family—as long as you’re doing it.”
As for being “discovered,” for example on the next American Idol, Brickman says, “I think there’s a message sent out by these talent shows that all you have to do is wait in line to show someone your technique; but for longevity in your career, you have to build it slowly. It really is a marathon. If you want it to last, you have to get out and do it. It doesn’t matter if it’s for five people or 5,000.”
This article is from our September-October 2013 issue. Click to order!